Partnerships are the Future of Nonprofits

Kate became the executive director of Waste Not in April 2018. At the time, the organization was a bit fragile and in need of not only a financial restructuring, but an entire infrastructure overhaul. As she was making her rounds as the new ED, she found a kindred spirit in Dave Richins, the CEO of United Food Bank. Like Kate, Dave was somewhat new in his role as CEO and he was incredibly excited about the mission.

“There was a great staff that wanted to do great work… but we were struggling with our cash flow,” Dave said.

So, when Kate mentioned that Waste Not was also looking to lower their operating costs and looking for a partner, the two started seeing a way to fix their financial burdens through collaboration. When Kate and Dave started exploring the partnership with their respective boards, Waste Not’s board echoed Kate’s biggest concern: protecting Waste Not’s brand. “Waste Not has been at this mission for over 30 years,” Kate said, explaining Waste Not’s success. “We’re the only one that serves that niche, no one is doing what we’re doing.”

Dave and the board of United Food Bank similarly wanted to ensure that Waste Not was able not only to keep its brand, but for the two organizations to start going after new opportunities that neither could win before, such as Feeding America’s MealConnectTM platform. Described aptly as “Tinder + Uber for food recovery,” the platform was a dream tool for United Food Bank and Waste Not. “We couldn’t compete for the grant without Waste Not, and Waste Not didn’t have the backing at the time,” Dave said.

So when the organizations officially came together, they “applied for it before the ink was dry on our partnership.” However, as both Kate and Dave noted, it wasn’t all rainbows and flowers. Any time two groups of such radically different sizes come together, growing pains are inevitable.

“Exploring the merger is great,” Dave said, “but there is considerable time and expense before, during, and after the transition period.”

The integration of UFB and Waste Not took place prior to the launch of Arizona Together for Impact and did not have access to the resources Together for Impact now offers. “Looking back,” said Kate, “I would have taken it slower and involved a consultant… I would have paid a lot more attention to culture as well as strategy.”

Dave echoed that idea, but added that “part of the charm was making the mistakes along the way… We had to own the outcomes that come from hard work. If you develop the muscles while you garden, you’re going to make sure it’s watered.”

While it’s only been a few months since they entered the formal affiliate partnership, both Kate and Dave are already seeing the results. Both organizations have righted their financial picture, are operating stronger, improving their standards and finding new ways to collaborate.

When asked about what advice they would give other nonprofit leaders considering a permanent collaboration, Kate said, “approach this as a strategy for growth for your organization… don’t wait until there is an emergency.”

Both Kate and Dave spoke to the need to “grow the pot together.” “To me, my competition is McDonalds, it’s Gucci, it’s Volkswagen,” Dave said. “We’re competing against companies who have millions in marketing budgets to fight for the consumer’s dollars. We’re just asking for a small donation.”

To Kate and Dave, the best way to succeed in the missions of their nonprofits is through collaboration. “Until nonprofits understand that we are all in this together, finding ways to lower cost and do better, we won’t succeed.” Kate, of the same mind, said that she “feels like these partnerships are the future of nonprofits. Through this, we can utilize the donated dollar a lot more effectively” than constantly fighting for it.

While the two organizations are still working through their growing pains, both are incredibly excited about the future. And, the next time Waste Not gets an alert from MealConnectTM or takes on a challenge as big as the Waste Management Open, they won’t have to scramble for extra support. Instead, they can lean on their partner, United Food Bank.

Stronger Together

Since he started as the first executive director of ONE two years ago, Michael Barry was focused on one thing: creating value for his members.

“From the very beginning of my tenure in early 2018, the board and I were particularly interested in ensuring that everything we did at ONE was focused on making it easier and more efficient for our members to access our services,” Barry said.

To Barry, this meant ensuring that they were not only increasing internal efficiency and operations but aligning with others in the community in similar practices to avoid unnecessary duplication. In doing so, ONE began a relationship with the Alliance for Arizona Nonprofits, finding that by working together they were able to fill the gaps in each other’s community outreach.

Last month, with funding from the Arizona Together for Impact Fund, ONE has officially become a program of the Alliance.

“The opportunity to be ‘stronger together’ was too good to pass up, and [it] has made our ability to strengthen and unite the nonprofit community that much better,” Alliance CEO Kristen Merrifield said.

The integration offers exactly what Barry wanted to bring to the nonprofit community: a collective focus, which provides ONE members greater access to programs and services. As a result of the integration, both organizations will be able to leverage economies of scale, relieving ONE from the constant pursuit of funding and providing the Alliance the ability to recruit Michael—an experienced resource with a background in marketing and business development—to their team.

Along with the business efficiencies, ONE and the Alliance are able to build programming specifically targeted to the C-suites in the nonprofit sector, something the Alliance did not have before. Under the umbrella of the Alliance, the two groups have hit the ground running, offering a variety of positive operational, financial and community outcomes by being wider reaching and more coordinated than ever before. For both groups, the integration is a step forward to create a variety of positive operational, financial and community outcomes. They can reach a broader audience than either could before, taking advantage of their respective strengths, experiences and members and giving themselves the opportunity to grow together instead of simply alongside each other.

“The focus of our discussions about the future are now more about the ‘how’ rather than the ‘if’,” Barry said.

Impact in Action

On the north side of Tucson is the strikingly beautiful Jewish Community Center, known these days as “the J.” Closer to downtown is the smaller, brilliant yellow building that houses Arts for All.

Although miles apart, these two thriving nonprofits are about to become partners in an integration that, although it had a few hitches, has overall been a smooth, friendly, mission-oriented merger that will lift both organizations onto a higher and more sustainable path.

HOW DID THEY DO IT?

According to Marcia Berger, she started by “shopping around.”

To tell the story, Marcia takes us back more than 30-years to a time when children in her neighborhood were dejected because they had no place to go and nothing to do after school. Marcia invited them into her home for a dance class, and Arts for All (as it eventually became known) was born. Through the years, supported by a series of very fortunate events, the nonprofit has expanded its scope to include arts classes for able and differently-abled children and adults.

Two years ago, Marcia was approaching her seventies and increasingly aware that working 60+ hours each week no longer made sense. What’s more, she believed the organization she built deserved to live far beyond her. With renewed emphasis on creating a succession plan, she launched what she calls her “listening tour.”

Over the course of the next 24 months, Marcia met for coffee or lunch with her own board members and with everyone she could find – in the Tucson area and nationally – who had been involved in a merger, consulted on a merger or had an opinion on the matter. During the course of that process, Marcia and “the J” found each other.

THE PROCESS

Todd Rockoff, CEO of the Tucson Jewish Community Center said, “It became so evident that we shared the same mission and values. It made sense to continue on that path and to see what was possible.”

The J already had a substantial adult day care program that began around ten years ago. It started small, but has grown to accommodate 45 clients. It still has a waiting list, making Arts for All and its potential for additional capacity especially attractive.

Detailed meetings are underway, both Boards have approved the action, with a final deal is expected in the first quarter of 2020. When asked if the process was difficult, Todd was quick to say, “No! Everyone has been working towards the same thing. Sure, we hit small speedbumps, but it was amazing to see everyone work through them respectfully and with a deep sense of collaboration.” Once their work is complete, Arts for All will become a set of programs contained within the greater JCC umbrella.

And while “merger” may be the technically correct term to describe the way Arts for All and the J are joining forces, both Marcia and Todd are quick to point out that’s not how they think about it. They prefer “integration.” Marcia said, “Merger sounds hostile and both parties lose some of who they are. ‘Integration’ respects the power of both organizations and honors what they’ve accomplished. You don’t lose who you are.”

“What matters most,” she added, “Is that we found a partner who values what we do. That’s really important to us.”

ADVICE

Both Todd and Marcia offer similar advice: work far in advance and take your time.

Todd suggested, “I wouldn’t sprint to the end of the road. Instead, get to know each other, ensure there is a good fit and that shared set of values.” Marcia also counsels openness and patience. “We need to be there for each other and support the other’s mission. Be open and realize we’re better together.”